Norwich approves bond issue to pay for school computers

Norwich - The Board of Education will have about $500,000 more to work with in its final budget deliberations today, after the City Council Monday agreed to issue bonds for state-mandated computer and software upgrades, removing that money from the school board operating budget.

The capital bond was proposed after the City Council approved a flat-funded $70.3 million school budget in mid-June that did not include funding for the $1.5 million tuition increase at the Norwich Free Academy. The bond will pay for computers and software necessary for the state's new online standardized testing that will be required next year.

Without a budget increase, the school board faced the need to cut at least 12 positions from the prekindergarten-through-eighth-grade programs at today's special Board of Education meeting to balance the budget. Superintendent Abby Dolliver told the City Council that freeing up the $500,000 in the budget that would have paid for the computers now will pay for "other things" in the budget.

"Other things to us are people," Dolliver said, estimating about eight positions can be saved with the funding.

The Board of Education Budget Expenditure Committee will meet at 4:30 p.m. today at Kelly Middle School, followed by a special Board of Education meeting at 5:30 p.m. Dolliver estimated four or five positions still would need to be cut.

The council approved the technology capital bond 6-1, with Alderwoman Sofee Noblick casting the lone dissenting vote.

Prior to the vote, several speakers at a public hearing on the bonding ordinance opposed the plan, calling it a "back door" method to increase the school budget and bad budgeting policy.

Resident Kent Fitzpatrick, who spoke against the 2.6 percent tax increase in the city budget approved June 10, called the bond ordinance "a job-saving plan that's poor fiscal policy." He compared the action to the state's long-standing practice of bonding operating costs.

"What are you going to do next year?" Fitzpatrick said.

Most aldermen disagreed, saying computer and software purchases belong in a capital bond, rather than as operating expenses in the budget. The costs are one-time purchases, leaving the $70.3 million flat-funded school budget as the base point to start next year's budget deliberations.

Dolliver and School Business Administrator Athena Nagel said the board did not have an option to defer the computer expenses to next year. Students in grades three and up must take the practice online tests this year.

Nagel said in practice testing this past school year on the school system's aging computers, students would get kicked off the system 10 minutes into taking the test and would lose all their work.

c.bessette@theday.com

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